PHOTO: CAM MATHER
More than a decade ago, my wife, Michelle, and I moved from a busy suburban street to 150 acres in the Ontario bush, where our nearest neighbors are three miles away. Ditto for the nearest utility pole. We’d transitioned to living off the grid with little knowledge about renewable energy — or electricity, for that matter — and had to quickly put into practice our home-schooling mantra of “lifelong learning.”
To say that the learning curve was steep is an understatement. Back then, there were no good books on the subject of renewable energy for homes, and the information you could find was pieced together by pioneers who were learning as they went along. Consulting with any local electrician was a waste of time, so we learned by the seat of our pants. Luckily, we developed a network of helpful and skilled friends along the way. We came to realize that the more things we learned to do ourselves, the more independent we would become, which is the theme of the book I’ve just written, Thriving During Challenging Times: The Energy, Food and Financial Independence Handbook.
As we begin to experience the converging challenges of resource depletion, climate change, and the ongoing financial crisis, we need to make ourselves more resilient to shocks to the system.
If you do decide to go off the grid, generating your own electricity from the sun and wind provides an incredible sense of well-being — not only from a sense of independence, but also from the realization that you aren’t using any electricity that comes from coal. Powering your home with renewable energy is a huge step toward reducing your carbon footprint. We started with a fairly small solar-electric system that the previous owners of our home had installed, and we’ve steadily added more panels. As we learned more about peak oil, we were determined to reduce our use of nonrenewable fossil fuels for both cooking and powering our gasoline generator; there are times when there isn’t enough sunlight or wind to charge our off-grid batteries, so we use a fossil fuel-powered generator as a backup.
Wonderful Wind, Super Solar
When we moved in, there was an old wind turbine on a 60-foot tower on our property, but several years ago we decided to replace it with a new Bergey 1-kilowatt turbine on a 100-foot tower. We are surrounded by forests (not optimal for wind generation), so putting up a 100-foot tower set the turbine about 30 feet above the trees to capture some of the stronger winds. We decided to film the installation process and sell a video of it via our publishing company, Aztext. I’m a visual learner, and if I could have watched a video of the process of putting all the pieces of our off-the-grid system together, it would have made our efforts go more smoothly.
The new turbine required us to upgrade our battery bank from a 12-volt to a 24-volt system, so we also upgraded our inverter and added more solar panels. In the previous year, we ran our backup generator about 15 times. In the year after we put up the turbine and added solar panels, we ran the generator just twice. This means that, on many days, we now have extra electricity to use for cooking, offsetting our propane use.
Most people who move off grid just move onto propane, substituting propane for all their major heat loads, such as cooking and heating water. We already heat with wood cut sustainably from our property, so using the electric stove helps reduce our propane use as well.
The biggest drop in our propane consumption came when we installed our solar hot water system. It uses solar energy to heat water we use for washing and bathing, and should offset about 60 percent of water heating costs. For most people, this should be the first solar panel they put on their roof, because the payback is much faster than that of photovoltaics. There’s nothing nicer on a cold winter evening than soaking in a bath with water that was heated all day by the sun. After the system is paid for, there are no additional costs, and there are no carbon dioxide emissions created by the energy that heats the water. It’s an incredible, guilt-free luxury.
Many utilities now offer incentives to integrate renewable energy technologies, and with faster paybacks on your investment, you can take the savings from these systems and pay down debt. This was one of our keys to being able to move where we did. We scrimped, saved, and paid off our old mortgage before we left the city. Financial independence allows you to capitalize on the opportunities that will present themselves in the future.